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A Crash Course in the History of Disney Animation Through Disney+

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Productions

Aside from its more dubious accomplishments, 2020 marked the 80th anniversary of two of the greatest animated films of all time: Pinocchio and Fantasia, both of which represented creative highs for the once-humble animation studio that turned into an intellectual-property-gobbling behemoth. Disney’s current era is a far cry from its early days of animation, now that it’s the home of Darth Vader, theme parks, and what feels like half of the streaming services you subscribe to.

One of those is Disney+. With this now year-old streamer, you can find all but one of the linchpin studio’s titles waiting to become your latest binge project. You finished The Crown, and you’re done with The Mandalorian’s second season: Now that we’ve entered a new year, it’s a fine time to tackle something for the whole family. Although Disney+ has made headlines with its newest titles, the vast expanse of Disney Animation’s feature-film canon awaits the young and the young at heart. Which films are most important to watch first? Let’s take a crash course in the films of Walt Disney Animation Studios so you’ll know where to begin.

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Golden Age (1937–42)

The quintessential classics that helped define a studio — and an entire medium of storytelling — make up the golden age of Disney Animation. It’s all killer, no filler.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

There’s no better place to start than with Disney’s first animated feature. This movie served as a template for so many other animated films from both Disney and its rivals. A winsome protagonist looking for her happily ever after? Check. Wacky sidekicks? Check. A terrifying villain hell-bent on gaining power? Check. Earworm songs? Check. But what makes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still groundbreaking 83 years later is the artistry on display.

This film’s technological breakthrough was the multiplane camera, a massive device that allowed the camera to “move” through images of a forest or the forbidding castle where the Evil Queen plots the eponymous maiden’s murder. Multiple animation cels (or images) were set up for each complex shot, making Snow White look as much like a movie as the live-action fare of the era did. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs isn’t the gold standard of the Disney fairy tale, but you can’t understand the studio without seeing how it all started.

Fantasia (1940)

Disney’s third animated feature, released just a few years after Snow White, was ambitious on a level rarely seen at any mainstream studio. Fantasia is unlike basically anything else Disney has ever done. There’s no overall story, almost no dialogue, and few named characters. It’s hosted by an opera composer. It’s wall-to-wall classical music. And it’s over two hours long. Fantasia may seem daunting, but it’s well worth the effort (and if you’re streaming it, you can watch the film’s eight sections in as many chunks as you like).

Each short in Fantasia allowed animators to flex their creative muscles. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite inspired the dancing flowers and mushrooms in the segment with that soundtrack, while The Rite of Spring describes nothing less than the evolution of life on Earth. (Fantasia isn’t free of controversy: A group of Black female centaurs was removed from the original cut in the 1960s because they were depicted as servile.) But Fantasia failed to hit big initially. One reason it took so long to make a profit was that Walt Disney wanted a sound system installed in all theaters that was too expensive at the time. Dubbed Fantasound, it was stereo sound decades before the world was ready for it. Eighty years later, Fantasia is distinctive and remarkable, showcasing truly jaw-dropping animation.

Package Era (1941–49)

The combination of middling box-office returns for Pinocchio and Fantasia with the onslaught of World War II meant Walt Disney Studios had to scale back its production in the 1940s. (Disney was also conscripted by the government to make wartime propaganda.) Fantasia inadvertently signaled the creative strategy of these efforts, known as “package” films: packages of short films that were shown together to achieve feature length.

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

The first notable package-film effort was a blend of live action and animation, black-and-white and color, and fiction and reality. The Reluctant Dragon is named for a Kenneth Grahame story, but only 20 minutes of the feature are given to its adaptation.

Beforehand, we’re treated to comic gadfly Robert Benchley traversing the studio lot. He’s ostensibly there to see if Walt wants to adapt “The Reluctant Dragon,” but first he takes a tour of everything from the recording booths (where he meets Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck) to the storyboard rooms to where cast members mixed paint colors. The Reluctant Dragon also shows off the multiplane camera, the creation of sound effects for Dumbo, and more Disney magic. The film was released during a contentious animators strike, in which they demanded fairer wages and better labor practices; at the time, this self-driven love letter struck the wrong note. In context 80 years later, The Reluctant Dragon is a valuable, lo-fi look at how the sausage was made.

The Three Caballeros (1944)

Even in package films, Disney animators pushed boundaries. During their strike, Disney and a group of animators visited Latin America as part of the U.S. Good Neighbor Policy. Among the results of that trip were two package films: Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros. The former is barely a feature, clocking in at 42 minutes. But The Three Caballeros is adventurous and weird, as we watch Donald Duck learn about the cultures of Mexico, Brazil, and other Latin American nations.

The Three Caballeros, like all Disney package films, has its ups and downs. After an early stretch in which Donald watches a few “home movies,” he’s pulled into the action by his fellow caballeros, José Carioca and Panchito Pistoles, and the movie comes to life. Even with its lower budget, The Three Caballeros is delightfully outlandish. The final section, titled “Donald’s Surreal Reverie,” shows the very horny duck drooling after women, and we see the caballeros’ heads on real women’s bodies and other daffy images. Few Disney films are so singularly baffling and charming at once.

Silver Age (1950–59)

With WWII in the rearview, Disney entered a silver age, returning to fantastical worlds and fairy-tale adaptations with expanding technological ambition.

Cinderella (1950)

Disney went back to basics with a female-driven fairy tale that leans as much on its comic relief as Snow White does. Cinderella may seem as if it’s about the blonde heroine, the sole servant at her evil stepmother’s house. Yet Cinderella is often a supporting character in her own story thanks to her wacky animal friends, the chatty mice Jaq and Gus.

Although you’d think tension would be fully driven by whether or not Cinderella can go to the ball, fall in love with the prince, and escape her evil stepmother’s evil clutches, the film spends almost as much time pondering if the mice will get eaten by the nasty cat, Lucifer. Cinderella isn’t as fancifully animated as the studio’s earlier efforts, but there are flashes of the hallucinatory quality of the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment of Dumbo. Consider “Sing, Sweet Nightingale,” a lullaby depicting the young maiden inside the soap bubbles she’s using to scrub the stairs. And few scenes in Disney animation rival the magical climax when Cinderella transforms into a beautiful princess with the help of her Fairy Godmother. Cinderella isn’t groundbreaking, but sometimes the basics are enough.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

The silver age wrapped up with Walt Disney and his animators balancing the visual ambition of Fantasia with the storytelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. More than 60 years later, it’s widely agreed that Sleeping Beauty is a masterpiece, but when the film arrived in theaters, it did so with a thud. Reviewers and audiences were unmoved by the stately depiction of the story of Princess Aurora, who was cursed at birth by the evil fairy Maleficent to die on her 16th birthday.

Sleeping Beauty was the last true masterwork released during Walt Disney’s lifetime. The story is deceptively simple, but the way the animators create moving pictures to mimic medieval-style stained glass is singular. The film’s emotional arc mirrors the effect of the sleeping potion that overtakes Aurora and the denizens of the kingdom: Sleeping Beauty has a dreamlike quality as it drifts from one setpiece to the next until the climactic battle between Prince Phillip and the primally terrifying Maleficent-as-dragon. Disney bet the farm on Sleeping Beauty, and it paid off. This is one of the all-time great animated features, period.

Xerographic Era (1961–73)

Although Sleeping Beauty was a creative triumph, it was expensive and unprofitable, so the next era aimed to be cost-conscious. One of Walt Disney’s longtime cohorts, Ub Iwerks, had perfected xerographic technology for use in animation. The xerographic process (which utilized Xerox-style photocopying) eliminated the ink-and-paint process and brought animators’ drawings right to the cel itself. It’s especially useful if you’re making a movie about, say, 101 Dalmatians and you don’t want to ink 101 sets of spots onto dogs of varying sizes.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a major shift for Disney as the studio’s first animated feature set in the present day. One of its most memorable images is a shot of scads of Dalmatian puppies watching a black-and-white TV set, a nod to the times. The film is also host to one of Disney’s most outlandish, disturbing villainesses, Cruella De Vil, who’s as evil as she sounds. From a visual standpoint, One Hundred and One Dalmatians isn’t as lush or colorful as Sleeping Beauty, but it’s a fun romp in which the technology matches the story.

The Jungle Book (1967)

In 1966, Walt Disney died, and the first animated feature released after his death wound up being the studio’s best film for the ensuing two decades. The Jungle Book is more episodic than some post-package Disney features, by design. This Rudyard Kipling adaptation depicts “man-cub” Mowgli’s encounters with jungle animals as the officious Bagheera and lazy Baloo shepherd him to a village to save him from a vicious tiger. The Jungle Book features a great set of songs (including the unforgettable “The Bare Necessities”), a killer score by undersung musical genius George Bruns, and beautiful, alluring animation that brings the jungle to life in ways the 2016 remake could only dream of.

While The Jungle Book has painterly touches and great character animation, a crash course in Disney’s animated features must also acknowledge that some of the studio’s films include troubling depictions of nonwhite cultures. The Jungle Book is one such example, indulging in old-fashioned racism and sexism unhesitatingly. On Disney+, there’s a brief warning of offensive content, but the content is still jarring.

Dark Age (1977–85)

With most of the studio’s fabled animators having retired and productions being scaled back, Disney entered a dark age of animation marked by edgier stories and alienated audiences.

The Rescuers (1977)

The Rescuers was the last true gasp for the elder statesmen of Disney, as they offered this grim adaptation of Margery Sharp’s daring rescue story. Depending on your point of view, this is an exciting adventure in which two mice rescue an orphan from a greedy kidnapper, or it’s a bleak tragedy in which a little girl is so lost that only mice can save her. Either way, The Rescuers boasts impressively dark animated tableaux and fun, off-kilter chemistry between leads voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. But as the studio continued leaning into darkness, it wound up alienating some audiences and animators.

The Black Cauldron (1985)

The 1980s were a time of abrupt change at Disney. After a group of animators led by Don Bluth (of The Secret of NIMH) walked out to start a rival company, the 1981 feature The Fox and the Hound struggled to come together. A few years later, Disney saw a bigger shift as Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived in the C-suite. When Katzenberg saw an early cut of The Black Cauldron, he was gobsmacked at its intense story line and graphic violence (for a Disney film). And he expected to cut it to ribbons just as he would edit a live-action film. (Animation editing doesn’t work that way.)

The Black Cauldron is a creative misfire that gives a fascinating glimpse into Disney’s struggles. It’s the rare kind of stumble that offers viewers a chance to see a studio grappling with and attempting to reestablish its identity. This rough adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series is intended to be an epic adventure in the style of The Lord of the Rings, targeted at teenage boys. Sometimes, the film looks the part — presented in widescreen, some sections set in the kingdom of the Horned King (voiced by John Hurt) are moody and disturbing. But The Black Cauldron can’t decide if it wants to be an ’80s-era fantasy like Krull or Excalibur, or … you know, a “Disney movie.” On one hand: undead soldiers attacking the good guys. On the other: a chatty comic-relief sidekick asking for “munchies and crunchies.” The Black Cauldron has fertile source material and some memorable images, but it was too schizophrenic to succeed.

Renaissance (1986–99)

The arrival of new executives and fresh blood in the animation studio allowed for a remarkable qualitative run. The Disney Renaissance is full of beloved favorites and box-office hits that remain among the studio’s best.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

The hits came gradually. Smaller-budgeted films like The Great Mouse Detective reestablished Disney as a studio that still made entertaining family fare, and The Little Mermaid cemented the Disney Renaissance, making it clear that Disney was a force to be reckoned with. Like some of the studio’s earliest successes, The Little Mermaid is an adaptation of a timeless fairy tale. Also like those early films, The Little Mermaid has a fearsome villain, hilarious sidekicks, and memorable music. But The Little Mermaid never keeps a fin stuck in the past.

The film’s co-directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, cut their teeth on The Great Mouse Detective before telling the story of Ariel, a passionate teenager who wants to spend time on dry land after she falls in love with the dashing Prince Eric. The true secret ingredient of The Little Mermaid is lyricist Howard Ashman; he and composer Alan Menken made their Disney debut with this film in melodically marvelous fashion. The songs are vastly indebted to the rich legacy of Broadway musicals, with “Part of Your World” functioning as an “I Want”–style number in which our heroine explains her innermost desires, and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” serving as the sea witch Ursula’s mission statement. Ashman and Menken’s songs are instantly unforgettable and necessary parts of the story.

The Lion King (1994)

Two years after The Little Mermaid, Disney achieved the unthinkable: a Best Picture nomination for an animated film, the marvelous Beauty and the Beast. But for some audiences, the true high point of the renaissance arrived a few years later. The Lion King, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with anthropomorphized animals, galvanized audiences early. Disney presented the opening sequence as a teaser, a wise choice since “The Circle of Life” sets the tone for one of the most rousing scenes in Disney history. The ensuing film owes a lot to Bambi; the manner in which the stories are told is different, but the character arcs are awfully similar. Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick) is next in line to rule the Pride Lands, but only after the tragic death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), does Simba realize the world is harsher than he figured from his cushy perch.

The Lion King isn’t Disney’s greatest work — its structure is lopsided, making it so neither the young nor the adult Simba feels fully fleshed out — but it boasts gorgeous animation and some complex characterizations. Jeremy Irons delivers one of his best performances as Simba’s uncle, Scar, whose loathing for his family leads him to stage a coup and rule the Pride Lands into ruin. The Lion King was ambitious, hinting at future Disney Renaissance titles that attempted to balance the epic and the silly.

Turn of the Century (2000–8)

Disney’s problem with The Lion King was twofold: First, it was next to impossible for the studio to replicate or soar beyond its heights; second, less than 18 months later, Pixar released an animated film that shook the industry to its core. Toy Story was an excellent adventure that proved the viability of computer animation as a feature-length medium. Later Disney Renaissance titles couldn’t compete, as Toy Story reminded the world that animated movies didn’t all have to be like Broadway musicals. Although Pixar’s films were consistently well liked and wildly successful, Disney CEO Michael Eisner had a contentious relationship with the then-chairman of Pixar, Steve Jobs. Even as Pixar was creating cash cow after cash cow, there was no sense that Disney leadership saw the value in fully absorbing the computer-animation studio.

Dinosaur (2000)

Disney caught up only at the turn of the new century. In the summer of 2000, it released a computer-animated adventure. Like Toy Story, it’s also song free. And it’s … well, it’s mostly computer animated. But Dinosaur doesn’t have the same emotional impact or memorable characters as Pixar’s offering. Its place in the studio’s history is worth acknowledging, even as it represents one of Disney’s few modern lows.

Dinosaur is the story of an iguanodon and his adoptive family of lemurs traveling to safety in prehistoric times. The film’s most distinctive technical choice is to superimpose computer-animated characters against live-action backgrounds. Arguably, it’s easier to convince audiences of the reality of a situation if the characters are traversing real places. But the animation in Dinosaur doesn’t stand the test of time, and the story is wan and forgettable. Like The Lion King, Dinosaur was promoted in advance with a teaser version of its opening, in which a dinosaur egg travels down rushing waters. But Dinosaur goes downhill after this opening. The film is an effective warning: Animating a story via computer doesn’t replace good dialogue and memorable characters.

Chicken Little (2005)

The same is true of the lowest low of this era: Chicken Little. Yes, this is an adaptation of the famous fable about the tiny chicken who thinks the sky is falling. But that fable is brief, so this Chicken Little turns the story on its head. Now, Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff in the midst of his Scrubs fame) is right that the sky is falling … because it’s the beginning of an alien invasion. Unfortunately, no one listens to him, especially not his gruff father, Buck Cluck, who just wants him to be a baseball star like Buck once was.

Arriving a decade after Toy Story, Chicken Little was Disney’s first fully computer-animated feature. Strangely, this film feels inspired by an outside rival: DreamWorks’ Shrek. Like Shrek, Chicken Little is replete with pop-culture references, cameos, and needle drops. Also like Shrek, Chicken Little has some particularly grim-looking computer animation. The character design is garish, and coming opposite Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, it’s easy to see why Chicken Little was less a path forward for the studio than a rough first attempt at embracing the future.

Modern Era (2009–present)

After the false starts of the early 2000s, Disney did the smart thing and bought Pixar outright, installing its creative leader, John Lasseter, at the top of Disney Animation. Lasseter helped Disney right the ship and embrace computer animation while bidding hand-drawn animation one last farewell.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

From co-directors Musker and Clements, The Princess and the Frog broke creative ground by introducing the studio’s first Black heroine. The film could have brought about a revival of hand-drawn animation; instead, it was the last stand.

This riff on “The Frog Prince” focuses on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) — a hardworking young woman in 1920s New Orleans who is saving up to open a restaurant — and the misadventure she embarks upon after turning into a frog. The Princess and the Frog is a modern pinnacle of Disney animation. With songs by Randy Newman, the film boasts the same showstopping Broadway-style music of the Disney Renaissance, coupled with a rare romance in which both partners are fully characterized and developed. The budding relationship between Tiana and her beau, Prince Naveen, works because, as with Beauty and the Beast, both characters get enough screen time to make you believe they would fall in love at all. The Princess and the Frog might have stumbled at the box office, but it’s an incredible curtain call for Disney’s hand-drawn days.

Zootopia (2016)

The shift to computer animation in the 2010s was more effective for Disney. Frozen and Tangled proved that princess stories could be handled via computer, yet the studio found one of its biggest hits by echoing Pixar’s predilection for mismatched buddies. Zootopia at its heart is a buddy comedy with a do-gooder cop (Ginnifer Goodwin) teaming up with a sneaky criminal (Jason Bateman) to solve a slew of missing-mammals cases in the eponymous metropolis. “Mammals” clues you in to the gimmick: All the characters are animals, from rabbits to foxes to wolves and more.

Zootopia is deft, funny, and the most richly animated film the studio has made in years. Goodwin and Bateman are a hilarious team, and the pacing is crisp enough to stand next to live-action action movies. The film’s attempts to draw parallels to racism in the real world are the big stumble, highlighting how parallels between animals and humans go only so far. But the story, inventive humor, and emotionally deep voice performances make Zootopia a fine closer to this crash course.

Walt Disney Animation Studios has progressed beyond its days of only telling fairy tales with standard templates and characters. But in recent features, there’s plenty you can recognize that was inspired by colorful stories of fair young maidens, dashing princes, and frightening antagonists. As Disney enters the 2020s with more questions than answers about where the medium will take it, there has never been a better time to stream the studio’s past to see how far it has come.

A Crash Course in the History of Disney Animation